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Cleaver & Co. Talks Meat Trends & Retail Expansion

Kris Doll and Seth Hamstead of Cleaver & Co. [Photos: Brasted]

Seth Hamstead knew there was a crucial part of the local food chain that was missing here. He realized that New Orleanians committed to eating locally had a fair amount of options for produce with the farmers market and places like Hollygrove Farm, but consistently finding local meat was tricky. So after much research (and obtaining an MBA from Tulane), Hamstead opened Cleaver & Co on Baronne Street in 2012, with head butcher Kris Doll who had opened up Cochon Butcher a few years before.

Step into the small but immaculate butcher shop and you'll smell the earthy funk of freshly processed meat - the Cleaver & Co team gets its animals from local farms whole, and breaks them down in-house. To your right is a refrigerator with freshly made sausage, charcuterie, and other treats - traditional items like andouille, tasso, boudin, italian sausage, confit duck legs. But you can also find unique products like duck pastrami, lamb sausage, blood sausage, and cracklin butter. Look to the left to see the availability and price every cut of meat imaginable from whatever cows, pigs, goats, lambs, chickens, ducks, and rabbits that have come to the shop that week.

Look straight ahead to see either Seth or Kris at the counter, waiting to help you figure out what your meat needs are and willing to do whatever they can to make it happen. Beyond the counter is where you'll see the butchers break down primal cuts, or cutting something to order for the customer. That's also where the popular butchering demos and the sausage making classes take place.

Why meat?

Seth: One of the big reasons we got into this, we were looking at accessibility to local food. Produce was covered, but not meat. Also, the way we buy meat in this country, you lose the custom aspect, the cut to order. That's something I really enjoy and wanted to have access to, so I figured others did as well.
Kris: Well, I used to go hunting with my grandpa, who would gut and portion out the animals when hunting. That just the kind of stuff you needed to know in my family. We'd go fish and hunt and I learned that you gotta be responsible to use as much of the animal you killed as possible. I started small, with rabbits and fish. When I went into the restaurant business, I broke down stuff like lamb, goats, and hogs. A cow is basically the same to break down as a rabbit, just on a larger scale. It came easy, I'd been doing it since I was 7 years old.

What surprising meat trends have you seen in New Orleans?

Seth: We're selling a lot more organ meat. I don't know if people just discovered it or are getting a taste of it. Maybe it's the paleo diet thing? But it's turned the corner, it's a much bigger thing now.
Kris: I've seen a lot of new moms come in to buy offal to feed to their babies. I guess because it's high in iron. The weird thing is, a lot of people talk a good game with nose to tail eating, but when it comes down to it, when they're here, they get the ribeye.

Was your charcuterie program planned from the beginning or was it something that evolved over time?

Seth: Oh, that was always in the plan. [Making charcuterie] was actually all I wanted to do when I first came down here from Chicago, but it takes so long to cure, you need to supplement the business by selling fresh meat. And this way you're using every part of the animal.
Kris, We had to wait to see what the weekly sales were and then we could plan around that. We can't really keep up, it goes as fast as I make it.

What's the most consistently popular cut of meat you sell?

Seth: It really varies week to week. We can only sell what the animal provides. But I'd say, the beef tenderloin, ribeye, flat iron steak. Ground beef is a big seller. Our sausage turns over very quickly. There's a seasonal aspect too - we sell chuck eye steaks in the summer for the grill, and chuck eye roasts in the winter for braising or roasting.
Kris: People in New Orleans really do take that "no meat for Lent" rule seriously. We are slow during that time.

What are your plans for the future?

Seth: The big thing is that we'll start processing commercially at the Robert plant so we can sell directly to retail accounts. And although [the] St. Roch [market development] didn't work out, we're talking about some other ideas. We still want a couple of retail presences and are hoping that will come to fruition. Being able to sell to retailers will be a big thing for us, we can't really do that on the level we want to because of regulation.

What is your meat philosophy?

Seth: One of the reasons I wanted to open this business is that I got sick of not knowing where my meat came from. I wanted to get as close to the source as possible. Knowing these people, are going back to the land, going back to how the animal should be raised and getting to know them as much as possible. I want to go out to the farms and make sure they're doing things the way they should be. Then I can pass the information on to the customer. More and more people are wanting to connect with where their food comes from.
Kris: You can spend less money on meat, but look at the quality of meat you're getting. And the peace of mind. Good meat is expensive, but so is cancer, you know?

· The Five Days of Meat 2014 [-ENOLA-]
· All Cleaver & Co coverage [-ENOLA-]
· Cleaver & Co. [Official website]

— Nora McGunnigle

Cleaver & Co.

3917 Baronne Street, New Orleans, LA 70115